With the intense partisanship and policy debates, the constant need to raise campaign funds, and, at least on Jan. 6, 2021, the threat of physical violence, it’s hard to believe that any departing Congressman or woman would miss serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But as he prepared to leave Capitol Hill after eight terms in Washington, D.C., Rep. John Yarmuth said he would miss certain aspects of what he called “the circus” and even some of “the clowns” who serve there.
“I’m leaving my dearest friends from 16 years,” says Yarmuth, adding he would also miss “being in that historic place every day and realizing you’re a part of history, even though sometimes it’s history you don’t want to brag about.”
The Louisville Democrat who represented the state’s 3rd Congressional district announced his retirement in October 2021, saying he wanted to have the freedom to spend more time with his two young grandsons. He also says he was ready to relax, especially after spending four years as chair of the House Budget Committee and helping to pass several massive COVID pandemic relief packages and a $1.2 billion infrastructure bill.
“I really didn’t want to go, but I was not prepared to stay,” says Yarmuth.
His departure from Congress at the end of last year coincided with Rep. Nancy Pelosi stepping down as Speaker of the House and Democratic caucus leader, which opened the door for a younger slate of leadership. Yarmuth, who turned 75, says he’s also glad his seat is going to fellow Democrat Morgan McGarvey, who is 43.
“It’s time for new generations,” he says. “The world is moving so fast right now, things are changing so rapidly that you need people who are a little bit more adaptable, and flexible, and will bring new energy to the job.”
Best and Worst Days in Washington
Yarmuth says his best days in Congress involved major policy victories, including the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 during his sophomore term, and passage of the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021. He says the ACA helped cut Kentucky’s uninsured rate by up to 90 percent. ARPA, which Yarmuth sponsored, provided the commonwealth with billions in pandemic relief.
That COVID package has drawn criticism from fiscal conservatives who contend the massive government spending fueled record-high inflation, while millions were lost to waste and fraud. Yarmuth argues the spending was necessary to prevent an economic depression.
“It’s easy in hindsight to see where we overdid it, but at the time, we had an economy that’d basically stopped and 20 million people lost their jobs,” he says. “Yes, a lot of people committed fraud and a lot of people got money who really didn’t need it, but in the final analysis we headed off a much deeper decline in the economy.”
But Yarmuth adds that ARPA is an example of a common problem with Congressional appropriations: That lawmakers focus too much on the spending and not enough on the implementation. He points to a desire to fund universal child care and early childhood education through the failed Build Back Better plan. Even if that bill had passed, Yarmuth says it would’ve been a massive challenge for states to implement.
“We can say to everybody we’re going to make sure you can afford your child care, but if there’s not enough infrastructure, if the child care spots aren’t there, then it’s a false promise that we’re making,” he says. “We have great ideas and real ambitious things, but we’ve got to figure out how to make them work.”
As for his worst day in Congress, Yarmuth says that was Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent lawmakers from certifying the 2020 election results and making Democrat Joe Biden president. After being evacuated twice, Yarmuth says he sheltered in his office for seven hours, staying behind locked doors and away from all windows while watching the event unfold on television.
“It was a day that I can’t still process because it was like, what country am I in?” he says.
As he reflects on his tenure, the former Republican who turned to the Democratic Party during the Reagan Administration counts several critical missed opportunities. He points to the failure to pass gun safety laws like universal background checks and an assault weapon ban. These are measures that have wide support among the American public but die in the halls of Congress, according to Yarmuth, because of the lobbying muscle of the National Rifle Association.
Immigration reform is another missed opportunity, he says. Yarmuth sat on a bipartisan working group in 2013 that agreed to immigration legislation, but then-House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the measure to the floor. Yarmuth says Republicans like to complain about immigration, yet won’t work with Democrats to solve the problem.
“We have to do it, it’s not optional,” he says. “We have a broken system.”
Friendships Across the Aisle
Though he won’t miss the partisan wrangling, Yarmuth says he counts several Republicans among his best friends in Washington, including Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole, former South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, and former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Yarmuth says he also had good working relationships with other members of the Kentucky delegation who are all Republicans.
“I consider myself very close to Brett Guthrie and to Jamie Comer, and relatively close to Andy Barr because we deal a lot of times with Kentucky-based problems and we get along really well when we’re doing that,” he says.
As he watches the new Republican-controlled Congress from the sidelines, Yarmuth says he hopes Comer, who is Kentucky’s 1st district representative and the new House Oversight Committee chair, will reconsider his plans to investigate the Biden family.
“I would tell him to be very careful – what they seem to be planning to do could dramatically backfire on them,” he says. “They’re going to try to embarrass the Biden Administration instead of actually trying to work on a positive agenda, and that has not proven to be a successful political strategy.”
The Democrat also fears what House Republicans may try to do with the federal budget. Some GOP members want to have any new spending offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. But Yarmuth says Republicans don’t consider tax cuts to be part of what should be offset. He fears that will set up another attempt to reduce the taxes paid by wealthy Americans, like the tax-cut package Congress passed in 2017 during the Trump Administration. Beyond investigations and budget cuts, Yarmuth says he’s not sure what GOP members, who hold a slim majority in the House, might do.
“It’s going to be very difficult for the Republicans to get anything done primarily because they don’t really have an agenda,” he says.
Honoring a Chief of Staff and Friend
Yarmuth was no stranger to the Capitol Hill when he arrived there in January 2007 after defeating incumbent Republican Rep. Anne Northup. He had worked as a legislative aide for Republican U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook in the early 1970s. He went on to have a career in public relations and publishing before running for office himself.
Shortly after winning the House seat, Yarmuth says he received a call from Julie Carr, a fellow Louisville native who had become chief of staff for Louise Slaughter, a long-time Congresswoman from New York. Although the two had never met, Carr asked Yarmuth for a job, saying she never thought she’d have a chance to work for a Democrat from her hometown.
Yarmuth said yes, and Carr served as his chief of staff for his entire time in Congress. In his farewell speech on the House floor last December, Yarmuth struggled to hold back tears as he thanked the woman he called a friend and alter ego.
“She made the decision to leave one of the most powerful people Congress... to come work for me,” says Yarmuth. “If she had left me at any time during the 16 years, I think I would’ve retired the next day because I couldn’t have done the job without her.”
Beyond spending time with his grandsons, Yarmuth is expected to write a book and teach at the University of Kentucky Martin School of Public Policy and Administration.